Completely paralyzed patients now have a chance at regaining voluntary movement as researchers have, for the first time, found a way to help individuals with paralysis move their legs without having to go through surgery or use implanted devices.

The noninvasive procedure known as transcutaneous stimulation involves a device that delivers electrical current through the spine by way of the electrodes that are placed on the outside of the patient's lower back.

The new technique has helped five paralyzed patients make step-like movements after several weeks of re-training using electrical stimulation, treatment with an experimental drug and physical therapy.

Although the men did not walk, they moved while their legs were suspended in braces hanging from the ceiling which enabled them to move with resistance from gravity.

The trial is being hailed as another step in research into how people who are paralyzed could regain some functions.

National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering director Roderic Pettigrew said that the results showed that for those with spinal cord injury, it could no longer mean having a lifetime sentence of paralysis.

He said that the promises of providing life-changing therapy to patients without the need for a surgery can be considered a major advance.

"We introduce a novel and noninvasive stimulation strategy of painless transcutaneous electrical enabling motor control and a pharmacological enabling motor control strategy to neuromodulate the physiological state of the spinal cord," wrote Victor Reggie Edgerton, from the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues in their study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma on June 15.

"This neuromodulation enabled the spinal locomotor networks of individuals with motor complete paralysis for 2-6 years (AIS B) to be reengaged and trained."

The technique developed by the researchers was based on an earlier study that showed the spines of paralyzed patients remain to have functional potential, which can be unlocked with the aid of electrical stimulation. The study involving four patients provided evidence that implanting electrodes in the spine would enable patients to regain some leg movement.

The researchers in the new study wanted to come up with a way to produce a similar result, less the trauma and expense associated with surgeries.

"There are a lot of individuals with spinal cord injury that have already gone through many surgeries and some of them might not be up to or capable of going through another," Edgerton said. "The other potentially high impact is that this intervention could be close to one-tenth the cost of an implanted stimulator."

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